It’s a Sunday night in Sydney’s western suburb of Guildford, where a dozen of early 20-something year-olds have gathered at the local community hall to learn the latest songs and accompanying dance routines for a performance taking place at the end of year.
To the public, they’re known as the South Sudanese Twic Mayardit Dance Group that perform occasionally at local cultural festivals. But to each other, they’re just a group of friends that meet up every Sunday night to practice some traditional song and dance that originated from their home state of Twic Mayardit in South Sudan.
They begin their first dance routine by slowly circling the room, but not long after they find themselves clapping theirs hands, shuffling their feet and singing to the rhythm that’s being drummed out from one of the plastic seats, stacked to the side of hall. Before they know it, they’ve collapsed on the floor in sweat and laughter.
Much like Kenyan-born Ajok Akot Kuot, who joined the group shortly after arriving to Australia, all of the dancers are South Sudanese refugees who once fled the war-torn country.
While she may call Australia home, Kuot relies on activities such as dancing as a way to stay connected to her cultural heritage and to be reminded of the warm memories she has of home.
“The need to carry on our traditions is very important,” says Kuot. “It’s good that we don’t lose our true selves and who we are, and that we can pass these traditions down to the youngest generation [through dance].
“Australia is where we belong now, but it’s good to not forget where we have come from.”
The 2011 Census state that there are almost 3,500 South Sudanese-born people living in Australia. The 23-year-old Kuot, who is but one of the many South Sudanese refugees to resettle in Australia, fled South Sudan and arrived in Australia in 2006 with two older siblings and her father, who passed away two years after they arrived.
“He moved here with us. Our mother stayed back. We were separated from her during the war. We went our separate ways, so we’re trying to look for her now. But it was difficult when my father died because it’s been just me, my brother and sister,” she says.
Kuot explained since her father’s passing, the dance group has very much been her family. Her father was not only a community leader within the Sydney South Sudanese community, but also one of the members of the dance group.
“I feel at home when I’m dancing because this is where I feel a sense of belonging; they’re all my family. In Australia, it’s hard to spend time with your family but to have one day of the week to see your family it takes your mind off everything.
“In a way, you’re living life in the western society during the weekdays but after that come Sunday night, you tune in with who you truly are again.”
Dancing also meant Kuot could keep out of trouble as a teenager, and now a little older, having recently graduated from a bachelor of business management, she believes it’s doing the same for other youths in the community. “This dance group is really important because it takes kids off the streets and brings them into the community through this program. It breaks people out of trouble.”
Emmanuel Kondok, founder of the dance group and chairman of the South Sudanese Community and Other Marginalised Areas Association in NSW, says dancing has also become a way for the South Sudanese community to connect with other cultures in Australia.
“It’s one of the very good things that we’re proud of in our culture. We feel happy because everybody [in Australia] likes what we do and want to repeat what we have. This gives us encouragement and proudness to work hard to ensure it survives so many other people can join in.”
Kondok recalled being taught how to dance from a young age and wanted to carry that tradition on, even after leaving South Sudan.
“When I was a little boy I was taught by my uncle from two years old until I was about eight. Whenever he danced, he would call me over, so I repeated what he did and we would end up dancing together. It became one of my favourite activities.
“When the war broke out in 1983, I left to the bush and became a ‘lost boy’, but when we there we wanted to repeat what the elderly had taught us and we did that by creating our own dance groups.
“It was just one of those activities that once we started, we felt happy...”
Sunshine, a four part drama that explores the hopes and heartbreak felt by those forging a new life in a foreign land, will air over two big weeks, premiering on Wednesday 18 October at 8.30pm on SBS. You can watch an encore screening on SBS VICELAND at 9.30pm after it airs or stream it online on SBS On Demand.